What's Wrong with This Picture?

MFA director Peter C. Marzio gets a bonus of $1.7 million while front-line museum employees say they have trouble paying their rent

As to the frustration expressed by some employees, the board member says, "It doesn't surprise me that there are feelings, but I can't speak to it either way," adding that the publicity surrounding the bonus is not a bad thing.

"The word is out that there are going to be all these articles, and I think some [on the board] fear it's going to be a hatchet job. But it's a public institution, and these things need to be aired."

So just how much is a $1.7 million bonus? According to James Abruzzo, "it's a very high number, an unusually high number, certainly in the cultural world." Abruzzo works for DHR-StratfordGroup, an executive se arch firm with offices in Houston. Based in New York, Abruzzo has worked on executive searches for museums and other cultural institutions for more than 20 years.

The museum's big-money donors are permanently recognized inside the new Beck building.
Deron Neblett
The museum's big-money donors are permanently recognized inside the new Beck building.
Ed Able of the American Association of Museums believes CEO-style directors are becoming the norm.
Ed Able of the American Association of Museums believes CEO-style directors are becoming the norm.

According to Abruzzo, the more common way of giving a large bonus to a director of a cultural institution is to create some kind of deferred compensation package. Abruzzo says one of the last bonuses to receive such attention was the nearly $1 million awarded to Lotfi Mansouri when he retired as general director of the San Francisco Opera Association in 2000. In Mansouri's case, a certain amount of money was set aside each year with the understanding that he would collect it when he left the opera.

And even though retention and reward bonuses are becoming more common in the museum world, says Abruzzo, Marzio's is still incredibly large for an arts institution. If the board members had wanted to avoid the unnecessary attention, he jokes, they should have thought to pay it out separately over two fiscal years, "so that snoopy reporters like you don't find the whole thing on one 990," he says, referring to the museum's public IRS documents.

The board's main argument supporting the size of the bonus is that by running the capital campaign in-house, Marzio saved the museum the cost of an outside fund-raising consultant. But that might not be entirely correct.

"I'm not disagreeing with Peter completely, but a $1.7 million fee for a fund-raising campaign --unless it was for working on a campaign for a very long, long time -- would be a very large fee," says David Jones, principal and partner of The Dini Partners, a philanthropy and nonprofit management company with offices in Houston, Austin and Dallas.

"There's no way of knowing a quick answer," says Jones, when asked what a fee would be for a campaign the size of the MFA's. "A rate is based on the amount of time devoted; it's never based on a percentage or flat fee." According to Jones, outside consulting can include anything from advising the institution to running every aspect of the entire campaign.

Still, there are those who think the bonus is well deserved. Almost everyone interviewed for this story, including frustrated employees, acknowledged the countless hours Marzio devoted to running a successful campaign over five years' time. Other museum professionals think the bonus was proper compensation for a job well done.

"From my own point of view, I think Peter has done a remarkable job in Houston," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York. "I think he deserves it."

There is no question that Peter Marzio has done great things for the MFA. The new Beck building serves as a capstone to a litany of other achievements. Under his direction, attendance has skyrocketed from fewer than 300,000 a year to 2.5 million in 2001. The operating budget has grown from $5 million to almost $35 million, and the museum's endowment also has increased, from $25 million to $430 million.

"It was completely transformed from a wonderful regional institution to more of a place in the sun," says former MFA curator George Shackelford, now with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Shackelford, who left in 1996 after 11 years in Houston, believes Marzio was the driving force behind a broadening of the museum's vision and scope.

"That kind of change is never the result of one person, but the catalyst was Peter," he says.

Other employees credit Marzio with smart hires, including the recent acquisition of Mari Carmen Ramirez as curator of Latin American art. Marzio has taken on several renovation projects such as the Bayou Bend House, one of two house museums affiliated with the MFA, and also has been instrumental in creating relationships with other institutions around the globe. The museum's latest partnership with the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow will bring art to the United States that has never been displayed in this country.

But Marzio is most often credited with expanding the role of the museum as an educational tool for Houston. His approach can often be quite hands-on; employees speak of his habit of giving impromptu lectures to groups of visiting elementary-school children. But perhaps more important, Marzio has increased the museum's education department to 16 people, one of the largest in a museum the size of the MFA.

Longtime education director Beth Schneider remembers that before Marzio the department consisted of a few gallery guides and a person who ran the department part time. When he arrived in 1982, Marzio insisted the department's staff and programming be increased. The MFA now has a lending library of more than 900 titles that teachers of all grade levels can use at no cost. The museum also has established traveling exhibits and works with the Houston and Harris County library systems, the Houston Independent School District and the city's Parks and Recreation Department to bring art to those who cannot get to the museum on a regular basis. The education department also implemented a bus program to provide transportation to the museum for those who do not have cars. To address the large Hispanic population in Houston, Schneider says, there has been an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking docents, the audio tour is available in Spanish, and the exhibits that travel to schools and libraries often have explanatory labels in both Spanish and English.

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